Bush's war over gay marriage

The president finally caves to the Christian right and backs a constitutional amendment, the better to beat up John Kerry. But will his newly emboldened right-wing allies go too far?

Published February 26, 2004 11:06PM (EST)

On the first day of his reelection campaign, George W. Bush attacked Sen. John Kerry as an equivocating wimp from Massachusetts. On the second day, the president announced his support for a constitutional amendment that would prevent "judges in Boston" from forcing gay marriage on Americans everywhere.

With Super Tuesday still a few days away, the Bush-Kerry race has officially begun. And if Bush and White House strategist Karl Rove and their allies on the religious right have their way, gay marriage will be the ugly centerpiece of the coming campaign.

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled earlier this month that gay couples must be given the right to marry, it handed Bush's supporters a powerful weapon to use in the 2004 race. While Americans are broadly supportive of gay rights, gay marriage is widely unpopular, particularly with blue-collar whites and African-Americans whose support the Democrats will need in November. The Massachusetts decision gave Bush and Rove a wedge to drive between those voters and the Democratic presidential nominee -- especially if it's Kerry, who will surely suffer from guilt by geographic association even though he opposes both gay marriage and the decision reached by his home state's highest court.

"The Massachusetts decision, the fact that Kerry's from Massachusetts, the fact that the Democratic convention is in Massachusetts -- it's just too juicy for the Republicans to resist," warns Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "They'll make it an issue no matter what Kerry says."

They're making it an issue already. Leaders of the Christian right have been meeting for months to plot strategy on the gay marriage issue, and they appear to have coalesced around a two-part plan. First, they'll join with the White House in pushing for a federal constitutional amendment that prohibits gay marriage anywhere in the United States.

Next they'll jam moderate and liberal politicians with a no-win choice: support the constitutional amendment or stand accused of supporting gay marriage. "Here's the thing we need to do," says Glenn Stanton, director of social research and cultural affairs for James Dobson's Focus on the Family. "Never, never let any politician find safe haven not to address this directly."

It may be a good strategy for the religious right, but it's a risky one for the White House. If Bush and Rove play the gay card too hard in 2004 -- or if they find themselves linked too closely to militant Christians -- they risk exposing the president to charges of gay bashing and scratching off whatever remains of his "compassionate conservative" veneer.

There are other risks for the right. An increasingly noisy and empowered Christian conservative movement could turn on itself fighting over how far to push on gay marriage. While Bush said Tuesday that state legislatures should be free to define "legal arrangements other than marriage," some right-wing groups are demanding that any constitutional amendment expressly outlaw not just gay marriage but civil unions or any other legal benefits for sex-same couples as well. And the emboldened crusaders of the religious right could also, in turn, stir up the Democratic rank and file to defeat Bush and the triumph of cultural reaction his administration represents.

But if history teaches one thing about Bush and Rove and their allies on the right, it's that they're not afraid to use nasty political tactics on divisive social issues if they think it will help them win an election.

And history teaches one more thing: They're good at it.

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It's Texas, 1994, and Karl Rove is running George W. Bush's campaign against Gov. Ann Richards. Bush appears to be in for an uphill fight against a popular incumbent, but then the whispers and the rumors start. Maybe there's a lesbian working for Richards. Maybe she's using state funds to visit her lover. Maybe Richards herself is gay.

"There was a lot of whispering going on in the backwater," says Bill Cryer, a former newsman who worked as Richards' press secretary. "I don't think anybody ever really thought Ann Richards was gay, but somebody was trying to plant the seed."

Bush says nothing about the rumors, but he doesn't have to. The stories are everywhere, and one day a Bush surrogate -- a state senator serving as Bush's East Texas campaign chairman, a guy who just happens to have worked with Rove -- says just enough about the rumors to get the word into the press. Richards' appointments of "avowed homosexuals," he tells a reporter, might be a liability in her campaign for reelection.

Just like that, the allegation is on the record, the rumors become newspaper stories, and Bush becomes governor of Texas.

Six years later, it's South Carolina, and Bush is running for the Republican presidential nomination against Arizona Sen. John McCain. The rumors start again, and this time McCain is the target. Maybe he's mentally unstable; maybe he has "sired" an illegitimate black child; maybe his wife has a drug problem. "A day in the McCain campaign looked like a day at NORAD watching missiles coming across the screen," says Trey Walker, who served as McCain's national field director. "We had a thousand missiles coming in every day."

After McCain meets with a group of gay Republicans, somebody sends anonymous letters about the meeting to South Carolina legislators who had endorsed him. Somebody distributes a flier calling McCain the "fag candidate."

Bush wins South Carolina, then the Republican nomination, then the presidency.

Neither Bush nor Rove nor the Republican Party will talk about what happened in Texas or South Carolina, or how they plan to use the gay marriage issue as a political tool in 2004. The White House did not respond to requests for interviews for this story, nor did the Republican National Committee or a top official in Bush-Cheney '04. But if the Republicans are silent, Democrats say their past speaks volumes.

"Just look at what Bush did to McCain in South Carolina, and that was somebody who was in his own party, who was also, by the way, a Vietnam veteran and American hero," says George Shelton, a campaign strategist and former director of communications for the Democratic Governors' Association. Facing a Democrat, he said, "I don't think they're going to feel that they need to be any nicer."

John Kerry has what the National Stonewall Democrats call a "lengthy and strong record of support" for the gay community. For example, he was one of only 14 senators to vote against the anti-gay-marriage Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996. Kerry said at the time: "I believe this debate is fundamentally ugly, and it is fundamentally political, and it is fundamentally flawed."

But the stakes are higher now that Kerry is running for president. And as he has been forced to do on everything from the Iraq war to NAFTA to the PATRIOT Act to "No Child Left Behind," Kerry now espouses a more equivocal, middle-ground view. He opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions. And while he says he'll oppose a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he is apparently open to a state constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the pro-gay-marriage decisions of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. But so far, Massachusetts lawmakers have been unable to draft an amendment that will garner majority support.

Kerry's nuanced positions could give Bush and Rove just what they need to attack him from both sides at once. The louder Kerry is forced to proclaim his opposition to gay marriage itself, the more he risks losing support from some gay men and lesbians and liberal gay-rights supporters. The more Kerry has to explain why he opposes a federal constitutional amendment "defending marriage," the more he risks losing support from socially conservative swing voters.

Kerry says he is up for the challenge. Immediately after the Massachusetts court ruled, Kerry launched what appeared to be a preemptive strike against any Republican wedge campaign. "I support equal rights, the right of people to have civil unions, to have partner rights," he said. "I do not support marriage." If Republicans "want to turn this into some wedge sort of issue and distort my position, I will fight back very clearly." And on Tuesday, Kerry blasted Bush for "seeking to drive a wedge by toying with the United States Constitution for political purposes" after the president came out for a gay marriage amendment.

Because of his strong record on gay issues, gay activists seem inclined to give Kerry the political room he needs to fight back. They'll likely give him a pass on his opposition to gay marriage, and they may even look the other way if he supports a state constitutional amendment in Massachusetts. But they expect him to remain firm in his opposition to amending the federal Constitution so that other states will keep the freedom to decide the marriage issue for themselves. If he equivocates on that, Kerry could begin to face trouble on the left.

"I think the vast majority of gay people understand that George W. Bush is a very serious threat, and therefore would be inclined to give the Democratic candidate a fair amount of leeway," said a prominent gay-rights activist involved in the marriage issue. "But there's a limit to that. If Kerry comes out in support of the constitutional amendment in any form, he'll lose turnout and he'll lose support."

The greater threat almost certainly comes from the right, and Bush's born-again allies have already begun to exploit it. The Republican machine now links the words "Kerry" and "Massachusetts" in the same way Bush has linked "Saddam Hussein" and "9/11"; say the two together enough, and people start thinking there's some causal link between them.

Never mind that Kerry was born in Colorado, not Massachusetts. Never mind that he has no control over the actions of the Massachusetts Legislature or its courts. Never mind that Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, who wrote the gay marriage decision, was named to her position by a Republican governor who is now Bush's ambassador to Canada. Kerry, in the words of the RNC, is a "Massachusetts liberal" who is "culturally out of step with the rest of America," and the decisions of those liberal activist judges come out of "Kerry's native Massachusetts."

While the Boston bashing may not count for much north of the Mason-Dixon line, the Republicans have also begun attacking Kerry as a waffler on gay marriage -- a charge that may resonate more even with liberal voters who are frustrated by Kerry's evolving views on the Iraq war. "That's the way all the Democrats are," said Focus on the Family's Stanton. "They can't support gay marriage and they can't not support gay marriage, and they're falling all over themselves trying to be consistent."

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In large part, the Democrats can blame the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for their predicament. When the court first ruled last year that Massachusetts could not deny gay couples the benefits of marriage, it seemed to leave the door open for the Legislature to provide those benefits through some form of marriage-lite, like civil unions. That's the path former Gov. Howard Dean took when he was forced to confront the gay marriage question in Vermont, and it's the position Kerry and many of the other Democratic presidential candidates endorsed: civil unions yes, gay marriage no.

But with its decision this month, the Massachusetts court essentially took away that middle ground. The court ruled that a separate-but-equal civil union category wasn't really equal at all. Massachusetts, the court said, must offer marriage -- and nothing less -- to gay couples just as it does to straight couples.

"For John Kerry, this could not be more disastrous," says Pat Caddell, a Democratic pollster who worked for Jimmy Carter and George McGovern. "I'd want to slit my throat." Caddell says there's only one thing Kerry can do: Go to Boston and lead the Legislature in somehow resisting or reversing the court's decision. "You can't run around and say what a great leader you are and be from Massachusetts but say, 'I don't have the power to do anything about this,'" Caddell said. "He's got to go up there and cause the Legislature to revolt -- tell the court, 'You're not going to do this on a 4-3 decision.'"

Of course, the Kerry campaign rejects Caddell's apocalyptic take on the issue. "John Kerry's position on this issue is crystal clear, and it's the same position as Dick Cheney's," says Kerry spokesman Dag Vega. "He opposes gay marriage."

Cheney, whose daughter Mary is gay, said during the 2000 campaign that Americans should do "everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kinds of relationships people want to enter into," and that it should be up to individual states to decide what sort of legal rights should be accorded gay couples. He says now that he will support whatever position Bush takes on the issue.

Some Democrats hope that Cheney's earlier public position on gay marriage will keep Bush from pushing too hard on the issue this year. "If Dick Cheney were to switch his position on this ... then there's the question of, 'Where's Cheney?' and Mary Cheney comes into the equation, and it's a big messy situation for them," says Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Already there's a letter-writing campaign aiming to get Mary Cheney to come out against any constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Frank, who spoke with Salon before Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment, said he believes that the gay marriage issue is a much tougher one for Republicans than it is for Democrats. Democrats can say that they're against gay marriage themselves -- as Kerry has done -- but that they don't think it's necessary or even appropriate to amend the Constitution over the issue, and that they don't believe the legislature in one state should presume to decide the issue for other states.

But will that kind of parsing really play in 30-second campaign commercials? Won't the Republicans be able to portray a Democrat's opposition to the constitutional amendment as support for gay rights more generally? Won't Republicans be able to blur the lines between gay marriage and civil unions and put the Democrats on the defensive? Frank said he doesn't think so, and he went off on a rant when a reporter suggested otherwise.

"How does a Democrat get put on the defensive?" Frank asked, his voice climbing with anger. Imagine a Democrat is accused of supporting gay marriage, Frank says. The Democrat can simply respond by saying: "'I am not for gay marriage. If it came up in Michigan, I would vote against it. I am not for gay marriage. And not only that, I don't care what any other state does, I will fight for the right of our state to make our own decision. And I'm against gay marriage.' You tell me how you put me on the defensive."

Frank's protestations notwithstanding, he clearly has some sensitivity to the politics of the issue: Frank reportedly urged San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom not to begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and he has subsequently criticized Newsom's "symbolic" move.

But Frank is not alone among Democrats in thinking that the marriage issue ultimately won't resonate with voters more worried about unemployment and the war in Iraq. While polls show that Americans oppose gay marriage by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, the issue isn't at the top of voters' lists. Earlier this month, a Gallup poll asked respondents to rank 14 issues in terms of how important they would be in influencing their vote for president. Gay marriage wound up last on the list.

The right -- especially the religious right -- is going to try to change that. "We're going to keep the issue before the people and make sure that all of the right questions are being asked," said Stanton, the Focus on the Family spokesman. "We're continually pushing to make sure that marriage is protected, and we're flushing out those who don't protect it and celebrating those who do."

For the last several months, the leaders of approximately two dozen right-wing religious groups have met regularly in and around Washington to discuss their plans for the gay marriage fight. They call themselves the Arlington group, named for the D.C. suburb where the group first met. Members of the group initially sought a constitutional amendment that would ban not just gay marriages but civil unions as well.

Many in the group have now fallen in line behind the Federal Marriage Amendment introduced by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R.-Colo., a measure that bans gay marriage but seems to leave room for state legislatures -- but not courts -- to institute civil unions. Bush's press secretary said Tuesday that the Musgrave amendment meets Bush's "principles."

However, some members of the Arlington group, like the conservative Concerned Women for America, are still pushing for a stiffer measure, one that would unequivocally ban any legal recognition of gay relationships whatsoever. "It should be an inalienable right, guaranteed by our Constitution, to live in a marriage-based society," said Robert Knight, director of the Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute. "When you create counterfeit marriages and put them into the law, you're undermining society's most important safeguard against tyranny."

The disagreement has created a rift on the right. The Christian Coalition, led by the politically pragmatic Roberta Combs, kept its distance from the Arlington group initially because Combs thought its all-or-nothing approach was unrealistic. Members of the religious right have "got to learn to give a little to get a little," Combs told Salon in the early days of the Arlington group's work. "We've got to learn to look at the big picture. The saying goes that Rome wasn't built overnight. Things don't happen overnight. It's baby steps. You've got to work toward the big goal, like every other liberal group has done, like every other conservative group has done."

By last week, Combs' frustration with the Arlington group had reached the breaking point. She sent a letter to members of the group in which she schooled them in the political realities of the situation. Said one source: "She gave them a little lesson on politics and how things work." The hard-line members of the Arlington group didn't take kindly to the condescension. "Let's just say that Roberta is entitled to her opinion, and leave it at that," Knight said curtly.

Knight rejected the idea that pragmatism should control the marriage debate. There is virtually no chance that an anti-gay-marriage amendment will win the required two-thirds support in the Senate -- a point that Knight and many other Republicans have acknowledged. So if Bush's endorsement of an amendment is largely a symbolic -- some would say cynical -- move, Knight said the president may as well "swing for the fences" by pushing an amendment that bans gay marriage, civil unions and any other kind of domestic-partner recognition for same-sex couples. As for the Musgrave measure, Knight said: "What this amendment does is split the president's base while uniting his opponents."

Although the leaders of the religious right are divided on the specific language of a constitutional amendment, they are united in their desire to make marriage a front-burner issue between now and November.

The ultra-right Family Research Council has distributed a marriage protection pledge to every elected state and federal official in the country, says FRC spokesman Bill Murray. Politicians who sign the pledge commit themselves to protecting "the inviolable definition of marriage" as the "legal union between one man and one woman." Between now and November, Murray says, the FRC will make sure that voters in every corner of the country know who signed the pledge -- and who didn't.

Focus on the Family is working hard in Massachusetts, urging its members to push for an amendment to the state's Constitution that would overturn the Supreme Judicial Court's decision. In January, Focus on the Family leader James Dobson sent direct mail to 2.5 million people throughout the country, "educating" them on the marriage issue and encouraging them to push for anti-gay-marriage legislation in their own jurisdictions.

Another Arlington group member, the Southern Baptist Convention, is also working to keep its membership informed about the gay marriage issue -- and who stands where on it. "What we'll be doing between now and November is doing our very best to make sure that every Southern Baptist who is eligible to vote is registered to vote and to make sure that every Southern Baptist who is registered to vote is aware of where the candidates stand on the issues they care about," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land said gay marriage will be "preeminent" among those issues. "I think this will be an issue in state legislative races, I think it will be an issue in governors races, I think it will be an issue in congressional races, I think it will be an issue in Senate races, and I think it will be an issue in the presidential race," he said.

The Christian Coalition distributed 70 million voter guides in 2000 and says it will do much the same this year -- and that gay marriage will be part of the package. A Christian Coalition staffer based in Washington said the group is in contact with its members virtually every day now, spreading the word about gay marriage. The group is pushing hard for a vote in Congress on the constitutional amendment sometime this summer -- just in time to force Democrats' hands before the November elections.

Gay marriage is "going to be an issue in the election," vows Combs, the Christian Coalition's leader. "I think it's going to be an issue that probably some people will judge candidates on. Our job through our voter guide is that we educate people about where candidates stand on the issues, and I think that's how a lot of people make their decisions about the candidates they vote for."

Although these groups must maintain at least some semblance of partisan neutrality to keep their nonprofit status, it's clear that their opposition to gay marriage -- and their support for a constitutional amendment banning it -- will help build political support for Bush as November nears. The groups generally can't tell their members how to vote, but they can tell them which candidate defends the "sanctity of marriage" and which one is in bed with the "radical" homosexual lobby.

"These conservative groups have amazing grass-roots ability," said Christine Matthews, the president of a Republican consulting and polling firm based in Alexandria, Va. "They have a whole network of supporters who are with them on these socially conservative issues. So while President Bush and his spokespeople maintain very moderate language, the far-right base has their whole list of folks who they can target in a more retail sense, through direct-mail pieces and phone calls, and through the churches. They'll use language that's not the kind you hear on broadcast TV or in presidential speeches. They don't have to risk alienating moderate voters because they won't be speaking to those people."

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In his State of the Union address in January, George W. Bush said the debate over gay marriage must be waged with respect because the same "moral tradition" that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman "also teaches that each individual has dignity and value in God's sight." He returned to the theme Tuesday, saying that the marriage debate must be conducted "without bitterness or anger," and that "strong convictions" should be matched with "kindness and good will and decency."

It's classic Bush-Rove: Position the president as a moderate, a good guy, a God-loving family man, then look the other way as his allies and underlings slide into the gutter. Just before his surrogates began bloodying up John McCain in South Carolina, Bush went on "Meet the Press" and proclaimed himself a "uniter not a divider." According to exit polls, South Carolina voters actually believed that McCain -- not Bush -- had run the nastier campaign.

Many political observers expect Bush will take a similarly hands-off approach to the gay marriage issue -- while his surrogates fight dirty where it counts. "You're not going to have Bush talking about it and arguing about it during the campaign," says Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "But direct mail, telephoning, literature drops and speeches in evangelical churches -- all of these things will be part of the tapestry."

And expect marriage to play a role in key congressional contests around the country, not just the presidential race. Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk was on the receiving end of the Republicans' anti-gay dirty tricks when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002. On the day before the election, someone placed waves of anonymous prerecorded phone calls in which a man with an effeminate voice praised Kirk, an African-American and a Democrat, for all that he had done for the gay community. It's hard to know whether the calls had an effect, but Kirk lost the race. The winner: Republican John Cornyn, a former client of Karl Rove's who is now pushing the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment as a U.S. senator.

A former Kirk staffer says the election-eve auto-calls were aimed at "predictably white areas, to Republican and swing-vote areas." Democrats and gay rights activists predict any anti-gay Republican attacks this year will be targeted with similar precision. The attacks will be used as "stealth approaches to communicate with particular constituencies" in places "where you would expect it to resonate," says Seth Kilbourn, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group.

Chief among those places: the South and rural parts of swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The Republicans will "use gay marriage in those places to avoid talking about the economy and the war," said a campaign strategist currently working for a Southern Democratic Senate candidate. The strategist spoke on the condition that she not be identified; homosexuality is such a hot-button issue, she said, that she couldn't take the risk that a Google search on her name would turn up a story on gay marriage.

The strategist said that Republicans have made it a practice to "out-gun, out-gay and out-pray" Democrats whenever they want to avoid talking about issues where they don't have the upper hand. Typically, that approach has worked well with blue-collar whites -- as Howard Dean put it, the "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" -- but it may work even better with African-American voters this year.

While African-American voters are usually reliably liberal on economic issues, they tend to be more conservative on issues like pornography, abortion and homosexuality. They may be the perfect target for a Republican "wedge" on gay marriage. If Republican operatives can wrap a Democrat in the gay-rights banner, some wager, turned-off African-American voters might stay home from the polls. The Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston threw its weight behind efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Massachusetts, though some local African-American leaders opposed the group's move.

Even in the more conservative South, the gay marriage issue may not matter much to black voters, says the Rev. Joseph Darby. Darby, who leads Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, S.C., is one of the most influential black ministers in the South. While he agrees that his flock is likely to oppose gay marriage, he says that African-American voters have other issues on their minds. "What's more morally reprehensible?" Darby asks. "To embrace the idea of same-sex unions or to have young men and women dying in the name of some invisible weapons of mass destruction?"

That's a sentiment Democrats hope to hear a lot between now and November. Many are also counting on the leaders of the Christian right to overreach and either go too far in their anti-gay-marriage crusade, alienating swing voters, or push too hard for vocal support from the administration, destroying the facade of Bush's moderation.

That may already be happening. After the Arlington group met earlier this month inside the Family Research Council's offices in Washington, some members couldn't help bragging a little about the backing they got from the administration for a constitutional amendment. While some members of the group were initially cagey about who gave them assurances, Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, couldn't resist telling the New York Times that it was Karl Rove himself. In a follow-up interview with Salon and Rolling Stone, Land said that Rove had assured the Arlington group that Bush would come out soon in favor of a constitutional amendment and would push for a vote on it in Congress "sooner rather than later."

The Christian Coalition got similar assurances the same day from Rove. "We were laughing about how the Arlington group had to call Rove and then wait around for him to call them back," said Christian Coalition spokeswoman Michelle Ammons. "Rove called Roberta the same day without her even asking." Ammons said that Combs has "the ear of the White House more than" any of the other groups on the religious right. "They call us all the time," she said. "They know we mobilize people."

Combs herself is a little more circumspect about her relations with the White House. In an interview with Salon and Rolling Stone near her South Carolina home in December, Combs talked about how close she is to Bush and Rove and about how much she likes them both. But when asked whether she had discussed gay marriage with either of them, Combs clammed up. "I think the White House knows where the Christian Coalition stands on the issue of gay marriage," she said. How does the White House know? With something between a smile and a smirk, Combs said: "They just know. Periodically, we meet with the White House on issues. That's basically all I'm going to say."

As Combs seems to understand, the White House may be happy to court the religious right in private but wary about pledging its allegiance in public. Open cooperation between Bush, Rove and the militant, anti-gay-marriage movement could hurt the president come November. "One of the problems the Republican Party has with swing voters is that Republicans are seen as divisive and intolerant," says a prominent Democratic strategist who asked not to be identified. "That's one of the reasons that people who make $100,000 a year and live in the suburbs and whose interests are otherwise aligned with Republicans find themselves voting with the Democrats -- they find the Republicans too intolerant. So the last thing they want to do is run a campaign on intolerance."

Maybe that's why almost a month passed between the day that Rove told members of the Arlington group that Bush would support a constitutional amendment and the day that Bush actually did so. The delay certainly had some on the right worried. Bay Buchanan, who heads The American Cause, the conservative think tank founded by her brother, culture warrior Pat Buchanan, told the Washington Times last week that Bush's "hesitancy makes the true believers be concerned that he's not with us."

That doubt may be hard for anyone outside the religious right to understand; on issue after issue after issue -- including the recess appointment last week of rabid anti-abortionist William Pryor to the U.S. Court of Appeals -- Bush has cast his lot with the born-again crowd. The only real question, it would seem, is how forcefully he'll do so when it comes to gay marriage. Bush can appease the religious right -- yet again -- by making gay marriage a public centerpiece of his campaign. Or after a quiet endorsement, he can stay above the fray, as he did in Texas and South Carolina, while his allies do the dirty work for him.

Larry Sabato says the gay marriage issue is "tailor-made" for such an under-the-radar campaign. Sabato expects to see anonymous fliers distributed outside churches, fliers showing "men kissing men and women kissing women, unattractive men and women in chains and leather," accompanied by text suggesting that the Democratic candidate supports gay marriage. He expects there to be telephone push-polls, campaign calls masquerading as legitimate polls in which conservative or moderate voters are asked whether they'd still support John Kerry if they knew he believed in gay marriage and thought it should be the law of the land.

That's not what Kerry thinks, of course, but nobody ever really thought John McCain was gay, either.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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